Inside the Scene: Cairo
Lineages of Improvised Music
When looking at the rich, global history of jazz music, the way it manifests itself in composition through improvisation, interpretation and performance perhaps tells a bigger story than we are led to believe. Regardless of whether or not it is driven by an explicit narrative, jazz music becomes an apt tool for critical reflection and historicity much in the same way Walter Benjamin once wrote of storytelling: “Traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel”.
By using music as a vessel to travel through time, we can experience jazz music from Egypt and the multiplicity of stories told within the works presented by Maurice Louca and the artists he and the festival team have curated in this year’s Cairo focus at Jazzfest Berlin. And while jazz music might not be the first genre one thinks of when conjuring up the sounds of Egypt, the history of improvised music dates back to the earliest Tarab works: from Mounira El Mahdeya, Abdel-Latif El-Banna and Fatma Serry through to the more explicit jazz works of Salah Ragab and his collaborations with Hartmut Geerken and, later, Sun Ra.
As we will see in the Cairo programme of Jazzfest Berlin, this tradition of improvisation is a key element driving much of the works on show as well as the range of electronic-acoustic and contemporary instrumental music coming out of the SWANA region. And while the prolific portfolio of music that Maurice Louca has produced over the past two decades does not always fall under the umbrella of jazz, his ability to challenge form while using improvisation as a compositional element has led to some of his greatest works. That said, in his most recent release, “Elephantine”, which will be performed at Jazzfest Berlin, we encounter Maurice’s most explicit jazz album to date.
Madosini // Elephantine // São Paulo Underground
Nancy Mounir: “Nozhet El Nofous (Those who were not invited)”
“If we break away from the assumptions that confine jazz as a genre, and focus on the core of what jazz has been and could be, we might find a lot of similarities with many different lineages of Arabic music”, Maurice Louca writes in his curatorial statement.
This idea becomes clearer when experiencing Nancy Mounir’s research project and album “Nozhet El Nofous”, whose release is planned for later this year.
At Jazzfest Berlin Nancy Mounir’s album and research will culminate within a video work exploring the lives and music of several female Egyptian singers from the 1920s who often worked with tuning systems beyond the scales standardised by the 1932 Congress of Arab Music in Cairo: a conference that some argue was responsible for erasing the future of Arabic music by standardising it to a Western tuning system, while at the same time excluding many of the leading artists performing at the time. Nancy has spent six years jamming with the ghosts of those excluded artists, such as Mounira El Mahdeya, Fatma Serry and Hayat Sabri among others, not only unearthing their narratives and musical genius but also exploring what it might mean for our future to transpose their music into the present.
Nancy Mounir: “Nozhet El Nofous (Those who were not invited)”
Followed by a Listening Session with Judith Hamann, Maurice Louca and Uygur Vural
Philip Rizk & Nadah El Shazly: Terrible Sounds
Also experimenting with temporality, improvisation, and exploring the quest for national identity, comes the commissioned video work “Terrible Sounds” by Philip Rizk in collaboration with Nadah El Shazly. As film-maker Philip Rizk says: “Music is extremely important in creating a kind of national imaginary of what constitutes the culture of a place.” The film explores this topic through original footage of the repeated opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1920s, before and after independence, accompanied by two classical compositions created in imperialist and post-colonial contexts respectively. These are juxtaposed with recent recordings inspired by “Muharram 1392”, an experimental free jazz album by Salah Ragab and Hartmut Geerken recorded in 1972.
For their commissioned work at Jazzfest Berlin, Nadah El Shazly and Philip Rizk resurrected this out of print album and asked several musicians to respond musically to it, thus creating the music for the video. In addition to Nadah El Shazly, the recordings feature Maurice Louca, Ayman Asfour and Sharif Sehnaoui, as well as the recently tragically deceased musician Hartmut Geerken, who was the only contributor to the historic “Muharrahm” album. Their art allows us to listen to the dormant stories that have been overheard in the region’s colonially shaped history and its search for a national identity.
A Space to Drift Off
Philip Rizk and Nadah El Shazly in conversation with Maha ElNawabi
Maha ElNawabi: Tell us a bit about the origins of this project, where the idea came from – and in essence, what kind of story are you trying to tell?
Philip Rizk: Most of the projects I work on are process-based, which means that there is a lot of improvisation. There are often pieces of a puzzle that only come together by the very end. The beginning of this project goes back to a conversation about Mohamed El Bayoumi, who is probably Egypt’s first cinematographer and filmmaker. One of the most important things he did was a film documenting the second opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun. This is one of the historical narratives that underpin our project called “Terrible Sounds”. The tomb was most famously discovered and opened by a British explorer and this was documented by an American cinematographer. But when the Egyptians were granted a pseudo-independence from the British occupation, the Egyptians proceeded to close and then reopen the tomb as a kind of official opening. In my projects, there are often different layers and narratives that somehow come together. The musical aspect is a kind of accompaniment to this historical narrative. The overarching issue that I am addressing is the creation and fabrication of the nation state – this is where music is critical. In the case of Egypt, the pharaohs are an essential part of that narrative, but then music is also extremely important in creating a kind of national imaginary of what constitutes the culture of a place. So, this is where two seemingly unrelated issues come together in this project.
Maha ElNawabi: Could you tell us a bit about your collaborative process? When did “Muharram”, the collaboration between Salah Ragab and Hartmut Geerken, come into the mix?
Philip Rizk: The last film we worked on together, called “Mapping Lessons”, looks quite different: it is a feature length fictional travel film, but again it addresses this issue of the creation of the nation state. In that case it deals with Syria and the Levant before the lines were drawn between these states. One of the things that was happening in the making of that film is I was trying to figure out what sounds would accompany the images. For me, these are not disconnected things. I do not work on a film and then create a soundtrack after the fact, or assign someone the task of making a soundtrack to something I am working on. They very much need to be in conversation with me.
Nadah El Shazly: What was really interesting to me in “Mapping Lessons” was Philip’s use of archival footage, and how he was very open to using the sound of the footage or not at all – how he was looking to reinterpret some sounds from the archive. There is a narrative at the end of “Mapping Lessons” that reimagines itself, and it was very clear that he wanted to use Salah Ragab and Hartmut Geerken’s “Muharram 1392”, which became the core of the work I’m doing with Philip. With that came the idea for “Terrible Sounds”: that we wanted to reimagine “Muharram 1392” and how it would sound today – because of many musicians’ parallel interest in playing improvised music and the way that currently evokes references to improvised music from the 1920s to the 1970s.
Maha ElNawabi: How did you work with the original “Muharram 1392” album? Did you reinterpret the scores together or did you create new scores inspired by it – and how did Hartmut’s input come in?
Nadah El Shazly: Through Philip’s connection to Hartmut and by finding a way to communicate with him, it was very clear to us that we wanted to understand how they had recorded this album, and how it came to be. They had a very interesting set up: in Hartmut’s apartment, he had mics set up that were running all the time. He invited people to come and play music -– I cannot remember for exactly how long …
Philip Rizk: He said they played for 14 hours straight, of which he archived around 2,5 hours in recordings.
Nadah El Shazly: The idea was that we should understand from Hartmut as much as possible how this record was made, and the spirit of this album – to use it as something you could play with as an improviser or musician. But we were all recording in different cities, so we were reacting to each other. Maurice and I started playing together because we were both in Cairo. We recorded two full takes and sent these out to the other musicians who are involved, Sharif Sehnaoui and Ayman Asfour. They then recorded themselves playing to the music they were listening to, to “Muharram 1392”, and it all came together when I got all the files. From there, I could see how they could line up and work together.
We used the spirit of the album as reference. For instance, Maurice and I were improvising with each other, then Ayman Asfour and Sharif responded to those recordings. But it was also very clear that the inspiration could come from your own palette – it did not necessarily have to respond to anyone. For example, the way Hartmut recorded gave us the whole palette of instruments and percussion that he was using. He recorded around 45 minutes of him playing in response to his own work, and then we responded to him. This was a very open process, looking for that dynamic interaction with each other and giving us all space to drift off.
Philip Rizk: I think something else to mention is that Hartmut is the only living, active musician from that 1972 session of “Muharram”. I was with him the day he recorded his music for “Terrible Sounds”, and that morning he had listened to the entire original album. He acts as a kind of bridge between that historical session and this new recording that we have made. Finding this recording from 1972 was an important discovery for me. In a way, the state has tried to eradicate a certain type of improvisation in music – or let’s at least say that it is not the agenda of the state. There is a drive for music to be ordered and organised according to a European imaginary, and this is something that happened prior to 1932 but it was solidified in the Congress and the years following. So, for me, this 1972 session, whether intentional or not, was a counterpoint to this state project. What was highly unusual is Salah Ragab – who is often mentioned as a key figure in the history of Egyptian jazz – was himself a military general and was in charge of the military band at the time in Egypt. So, for Salah and Hartmut Geerken, to be working with this very central state institution in a way subverts and undermines the energy of that project – again whether intentional or not.
Maha ElNawabi: Some people argue that the 1932 Congress erased the future of Arabic music by standardising its tonal systems. Could talk about these temporal elements, and the idea of taking inspiration from a distant past rather than a recent past to reclaim these lost narratives?
Nadah El Shazly: Let me start by saying that my own personal interest in this time began the first time I listened to Abdel-Latif El-Banna and Mounira El Mahdeya. I thought it was actually music from the future. I could not believe it was from the past. The level at which they were playing together, without all these rules to constrain them, made their playing a lot more open. I think the power of improvisation and opening up the imagination of what you can do musically, and the extent you can change many things that are considered wrong in the Arab world, for example Mahraganat musicians who are getting attacked for not knowing music theory, is really important. You can free yourself from those ideas, at the same time evoking musicians that actually existed and were important and respected in Egyptian history. I think this situation really speaks to us as musicians or artists who reimagine other ways of doing things from how they are done today in that institutional prison.
Philip Rizk: I think that is absolutely beautiful. And it sums up why I wanted to work with you and with someone who thinks about music in that way. I think in Egypt, as in so many places, we find ourselves in a moment where we are told that there is no place for imagining that things might be different. For me, it is very important that we do that: just to stay alive, we need to imagine that things can be different from the way they are. In a lot of ways, we are in a very oppressive and dark moment: so to be able to look beyond what surrounds us, it is important to engage the imagination in a way like this. This is why music plays such a significant role in a project like “Terrible Sounds” – it is the unspoken narrative that guides this film.
Terrible Sounds // Dave Douglas // Metá Metá // Nduduzo Makhathini
Goodbye Hartmut Geerken
Obituary by Philip Rizk
In the summer of 2017, I was searching for sounds for my film “Mapping Lessons” when I discovered the out of print album “Muharram 1392”, a free improvisation session recorded in Hartmut Geerken’s living room in Cairo in 1972. When I found that he was still playing music, I called him. He was excited to receive a call from Cairo and to talk about his work there almost 50 years ago. Unsurprisingly, he accepted the invitation to record an album with contemporary musicians from the region.
Hartmut believed in a spiritual realm that did not need explanation or a system of logic. He was open to new experiences, and for him, there was no such thing as coincidences. So when, a short time after he arrived in Cairo in 1967, he ended up sitting at a reception with two musicians, one of whom was a jazz player, and the other an aspiring one, it didn’t take long for the three to form a band together. It helped that Salah Ragab was also an army general who led Egypt’s military band.
Hartmut was an eclectic director of the Goethe Institute in Cairo where he occasionally played alongside exiled Black Panther musicians. His “Music for Angela Davis” will be released later this year. But much of his time was devoted to helping Ragab’s soldier musicians unlearn their training in the European art of performing national anthems. Instead, he taught them the old skill of free improvisation, a practice that gets to the heart of the revolutionary movement that swept across Egypt and the region starting in 2011. It was also that year that Hartmut released “Muharram 1392”.
I only knew Hartmut for the last four years of his life. He was passionate, full of energy and did not act his age. He loved talking about his meetings with Sun Ra and the Arkestra in Egypt, and the adventures of playing jazz under military rule. He lived in a liberating way and was a beautiful soul.
You were a bridge, Hartmut. I miss you deeply.
— text & interviews
Cairo-based writer, music journalist, content producer Maha ElNabawi is a co-founder of the online journal Mada Masr. Her music writing was featured in the Wire UK, The Guardian, Spex, The National UAE and Norient. She is contributing author in the book “Ten Cities”, a socio-political critique through the lens of dance music and club culture, as well as co-creator of “Katalog”, an Arabic podcast featuring musicians from the MENA region. Maha ElNabawi is currently working on a second book about contemporary music from the Arab world and canceled futures .